Covid-19 worsens plight of stateless migrant children in South Africa

As the number of children born in South Africa to undocumented migrant parents continues to grow, researchers have raised concerns about the unchecked cycle of statelessness and undocumented foreigners in the country.

Thousands of children born to undocumented migrants living and working in South Africa have failed to access birth certificates and identity documents because their parents are considered to be in the country illegally.

Added to that, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) says while South Africa remains a major route for migration, little is known about migrant children in the country to ensure they have access to birth registration, education and health services.

Efforts to formalise their stay have been halted by the closure of home affairs centres in line with Covid-19 lockdown regulations as part of public health measures to control the spread of the virus.

These concerns are contained in a report launched this week by the Brenthurst Foundation.

The report, Migrants at a Crossroads: Xenophobia, Covid and the SA experience, seeks to guide policy makers towards addressing the trials and tribulations of foreigners, the majority of whom are undocumented.

“Children born in South Africa to undocumented parents are stateless,” said Emmanuel Owusu-Sekyere, deputy research director at the Brenthurst Foundation, who led the research.

“Statelessness at birth needs to be addressed as it increases the stock of undocumented non-nationals across generations over time,” Owusu-Sekyere said.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) has said that many “stateless people live on the margins of society and are undocumented, making their identification difficult”.

As researchers have found, South Africa’s undocumented migrants are reluctant to come forward for fear of arrest and deportation and Covid-19 restrictions have exposed the extent of the crisis.

“Programmes that integrate into society are non-existent and since migration management is reactive in outlook, migrants self-select into available social networks,” Owusu-Sekyere said.

And those networks have included staying away from home affairs, where they are expected to regularise their stay.  This would also allow their children to enjoy benefits afforded to other children recognised as South African.  

But beyond statelessness comes other problems for migrant children.

“These children are not accepted at school without the right documentation,” Owusu-Sekyere said.

In March 2020, minister of basic education Angie Motshekga “reminded” public schools to immediately admit undocumented learners, this after the African Diaspora Forum won a court challenge allowing children of undocumented migrants to attend classes.

Yet concerns raised by researchers could point to evidence that the directive is not being implemented.  

In December 2020, the South African government reported that there were more than
642 000 migrant and refugee children in the country.

However, with the Brenthurst Foundation estimating that there are more than 4 million undocumented migrants, the number of undocumented children in need of birth certificates could be more.

It has also been estimated that Covid-19 took more than 1 million children out of classes. What is not clear is how many of those children are migrant children, who typically have no documents that would allow them to attend formal classes.

“For over two years, migrants have been unable to access home affairs offices, effectively excluding people who are already marginalised,” said Giulia Treves, executive director at the Scalabrini Centre, which works with migrants and refugees in Cape Town and who spoke via Zoom at the launch of the report.

Undocumented children have not been spared the xenophobia faced by their parents, researchers say, noting that Covid-19 disproportionately affected migrant children.

However, this is not the first time the issue of stateless migrant children has been raised as thousands have reportedly grown into adulthood still without proper documentation.

When these same migrants have their own children, the cycle of statelessness continues.

In the intervening years, there has been little traction in ensuring South Africa meets international benchmarks that guarantee every child a right to proper documentation, Owusu-Sekyere said.

These bottlenecks have led to broader repercussions in how migrants plan for the future of their children and their children’s children.

“Undocumented migrants cannot register the birth of their child,” Treves said.

“In the event that the law is changed, the undocumented parents are still not likely to walk into home affairs to register their child. The system is creating more undocumented people,” she said.

The Brenthurst Foundation researchers say ways must be explored to ensure the registration of migrant children is not abused if undocumented migrants are to be allowed to register their offspring as South African nationals.

“Clauses must be put in place to protect South Africa’s interests and sovereignty so no one can just come to South Africa to give birth so that their child gets South African documents,” Owusu-Sekyere said.  

“No innocent child should be punished,” Owusu-Sekyere said.

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Marko Phiri
Marko Phiri
Marko Phiri is a freelance journalist

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